There’s the Google bus. And Boston’s Bridj. Toronto’s in on the action too. Tech-inspired private buses can spark controversy, but now commuters from suburban New Jersey are testing out a new on-demand direct transport service. (Don’t fret, an Uber comparison is on its way.)
OurBus, which launched in May, currently serves about 500 commuters on one route from Kendall Park, New Jersey, to high-demand locations in New York like Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center. For now, a single bus runs morning and afternoon, carrying about 70 passengers a day to and from a New Jersey park-and-ride. But founders Mike Virdi and Narinder Singh say they’ve developed a technology that will create responsive routes for picking up passengers within walking distance from their homes and depositing them within walking distance of their offices. They plan to open 75 routes within a year.
“I’ve been commuting to New York City for almost 20 years now, from all parts of New Jersey to all parts of New York,” says Virdi. In that time, he’s tried every combination of bus and train and shuttle and taxi, but he says the commute has only gotten worse. When he moved to Princeton last year, the trip became two hours door-to-door.
And he was paying a premium: $420 for a monthly pass on private bus operator Suburban Transit, plus extra for whatever subway or taxi he might need to finish his route once he arrived in New York. (A monthly Amtrak pass for Princeton to Penn Station runs an even steeper $499.)
Over a million people commute daily from New Jersey to New York alone. Virdi’s mother was one of them. “It’s not easy for her to climb up and down stairs and take a transfer and switch to subways and stations so forth,” he says. He sat down with his friend Singh, a logistics expert who had been working on a similar concept, and OurBus was born.
The company intends to operate in a fashion similar to Uber (told you): OurBus owns no assets, and instead contracts with charter bus companies that are in high demand for special events on weekends but underbooked on weekdays. The bus companies provide the drivers and the insurance. OurBus supplies the technology and logistics, including a digital ticketing platform that lets riders reserve a specific seat. “We don’t own any buses,” Virdi says. “What we’ve done is created a technology that can benefit anyone who owns buses.”
Well, not quite anyone. Virdi says OurBus would gladly partner with any bus owner, including public agencies or existing bus companies like Suburban Transit — which is owned by Coach — provided they furnish new, luxury buses with all the amenities. Those include WiFi, charging stations, restrooms, the works. Virdi says, given that commuters are sometimes on the road for up to two hours, he considers those comforts as standard. Because the buses will make a limited number of stops, travel times could be drastically shorter.
OurBus’ monthly pass costs $220 right now, during a promotional period, and Virdi says it will never top $300. He says other revenue sources could offset costs for commuters, and be a boon for bus companies too. The company is interested in working with hotels and regional airports to fit in extra trips for buses between the morning commuter drop-off and afternoon pickup.
“We started out trying to create a solution for commuters, saving them time and money, but in the process we also ended up creating profitable routes for bus companies who were losing money,” he says.
Whether it will be a boon for public transit is hard to say. “Our service is complementary to public transit, not a one-for-one replacement,” Virdi wrote in an email. “Research shows that the more transit options people have for a given trip, the more willing they are to ride, and to ride often.”
Some research has shown that people who use ride-hailing apps also tend to use public transit more frequently. However, many equity advocates say the long-term impact of private, on-demand ride services on public transit is a risky question mark.
In Virdi’s world, OurBus’ greatest competitor isn’t a public agency, but Suburban Transit, another private bus company that Virdi says has been aggressive toward OurBus from day one. (Suburban Transit did not respond to requests for comment.) But Virdi recognizes that however large it might get, OurBus will always be relatively niche, and he even thinks it could help public transit.
“Most agencies have several low-ridership routes that serve areas of little demand,” he wrote. “We couldn’t serve them effectively. What we can do is start partnering with them to operate certain high-demand but niche services. This would allow them to withdraw subsidy moneys from those routes, and dedicate their funding to improving service on the other routes where it is most needed.”
Right now, OurBus is improving its tech and preparing to expand. Virdi says commuter groups and some planned communities have approached the company about getting their own bus, and the company already has 37 routes researched in New Jersey and ready to launch. After another round of funding next month, OurBus plans to start one or two new routes every month.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.